Mr Modi, don’t pa­tent cow urine

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Achal Prab­hala, S Kr­ish­nash­wamy

THE rul­ing Bharatiya Janata Party is fa­mously ob­sessed with the cow, which is ven­er­ated in Hindu cos­mol­ogy. Most In­dian states have now banned cow slaugh­ter. The gov­ern­ment of Pun­jab wants to tax al­co­hol to pay for shel­ters for stray cat­tle. Last year, af­ter a Mus­lim man in Ut­tar Pradesh was lynched by a mob for eat­ing beef, a cabi­net min­is­ter from the BJP de­manded to know who else was “in­volved in the crime” — mean­ing beef eat­ing, not the man’s killing.

It should prob­a­bly come as no sur­prise, then, that the BJP is also tout­ing the medic­i­nal virtues of con­sum­ing cow urine. The ther­apy is men­tioned in the Ayurveda, an an­cient heal­ing sys­tem de­scribed in Hin­duism’s foun­da­tional texts. In the early 2000s, when the BJP led the gov­ern­ing coali­tion of the day, the Coun­cil of Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search, a state-funded net­work of re­search lab­o­ra­to­ries, started pro­mot­ing cow-urine tech­nol­ogy as a treat­ment for di­a­betes, in­fec­tions, can­cer and even DNA dam­age.

To­day, the In­dian gov­ern­ment holds more than a dozen patents re­lated to cow urine and has filed ap­pli- cations for them in nearly 150 coun­tries. Many na­tions, in­clud­ing the United States, France and South Korea, have rec­og­nized these, but not In­dia, which has much stricter stan­dards for patents. For now.

The BJP gov­ern­ment re­leased In­dia’s first Na­tional In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Rights Pol­icy last month, and it is dan­ger­ously mis­guided. Although the pa­per reaf­firms the ba­sic tenets of In­dia’s ad­mirably far­sighted pa­tent laws, it also calls for pro­tect­ing tra­di­tional reme­dies like cow urine. Taken to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, this pol­icy could open door to many more ex­cep­tions, play­ing into hands of pa­tent-happy in­ter­na­tional phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies.

Big Pharma jus­ti­fies ag­gres­sive patent­ing by claim­ing that prof­it­mak­ing drives in­ven­tion by giv­ing labs and com­pa­nies an in­cen­tive to in­vest in re­search. In­dian law takes the op­po­site view: Higher stan­dards for le­gal pro­tec­tion leave more room for in­no­va­tion. Un­like many other coun­tries, In­dia does not al­low patents for nat­u­ral sub­stances, tra­di­tional reme­dies, friv­o­lous in­ven­tions or mar­ginal in­no­va­tions.

This is a good thing — a great thing, in fact. Hav­ing fewer patents means more com­pe­ti­tion for more generic drugs, which means more af­ford­able medicine for more peo­ple. Ima­tinib, a drug used to treat a form of leukemia, is avail­able in In­dia at about one-tenth the price it costs in much of the world. In 2000, when the only anti-retro­vi­ral drugs for HIV/ AIDS avail­able were pro­duced by West­ern com­pa­nies, the an­nual cost of treat­ment was about $10,000. The price has dropped to about $350, at least in the de­vel­op­ing world, thanks to generic equiv­a­lents that were de­vel­oped in In­dia.

This, be­ing pre­cisely what In­dian law pro­hibits, has made In­dia a fix­ture of the “Pri­or­ity Watch List” of the US Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive’s Spe­cial 301 Re­port, a kind of most­wanted ros­ter of the world’s in­tel­lec­tual-prop­erty de­viants. Ahead of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s visit to the United States last week, 17 US in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tions, in­clud­ing the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Re­search and Man­u­fac­tur­ers of Amer­ica, wrote to Pres­i­dent Obama to com­plain about In­dia’s busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment, in par­tic­u­lar its pa­tent laws.

Ac­cord­ing to the Hin­dus­tan Times, over the last decade the Coun­cil of Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search has spent around $50 mil­lion on pa­tent ap­pli­ca­tions, in­clud­ing for us­ing cow urine in health ton­ics, en­ergy drinks and choco­late. The health min­istry’s spe­cial depart­ment for tra­di­tional knowl­edge — known as the AYUSH depart­ment, for Ayurveda, Yoga & Natur­opa­thy, Unani, Sid­dha and Ho­moeopa­thy — was el­e­vated to a full min­istry af­ter the BJP won the gen­eral elec­tion in 2014.

Patent­ing cow urine is a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the Hindu right’s ob­ses­sion with the cow. It makes ide­o­log­i­cal sense for a na­tion­al­ist party that rides on a wounded Hindu psy­che to claim that In­dian sci­ence was well ahead of West­ern sci­ence. But this is bad his­tory. A large part of what In­dia claims as its in­dige­nous her­itage isn’t ex­clu­sively ours: Unani medicine comes from Per­sia; the ori­gins of home­opa­thy are Ger­man.

The BJP’s na­tivist, Hindu-pride ap­proach to patents is also bad eco­nomics. It un­wit­tingly serves the in­ter­ests of Big Pharma, and in time this will un­der­cut In­dia’s own phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try, which gen­er­ates some $15 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enues. In­dia’s pa­tent laws, cur­rently un­der con­sid­er­a­tion as a model in South Africa and Brazil, are a world­class in­no­va­tion; our cow-urine tech­nol­ogy, which has yet to garner much in­ter­est abroad, is not. To pa­tent cow urine isn’t just silly. It also en­dan­gers a re­mark­ably in­no­va­tive pa­tent sys­tem that has served In­dia’s peo­ple and many oth­ers around the world so well.

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